The World of Work Project

Common Language

Common language refers to words or phrases that are commonly understood by a group of people. In an organizational context, the phrase often relates to specially introduced words or phrases that help members of the organization communicate more effectively.

Summary by The World of Work Project

Common language

In all walks of life, communication can be inefficient and confusing. Individuals will use words of phrases that have specific meanings to them, but which can be potentially misunderstood by others. In most circumstances this just leads to minor confusion but, when complex or emotional subjects are being discussed, it can lead to significant breakdowns in communication or relationships. At an organizational level this can be a real problem.

Language is only helpful if you understand what is really being communicated.

One of the best ways to overcome this is through the introduction common language into an organization in the form of specific words or phrases.

By introducing specific common language, and ensuring that everyone in the organization has a chance to explore and fully understand what is meant by the language, it’s possible to create new, efficient ways to communicate potentially complex and easily misconstrued ideas.

Common language evolves naturally in nearly all organizations, and is simply part of an organization’s culture. It’s not always intentionally introduced though. When it is intentionally introduced, it’s often particularly effective as a tool to help with communication of cultural or emotional situations.

One of the great advantages of common language is that the shared understanding associated with it means that people know not just what it means, but how they are expected to react to it. This broader knowledge means that it’s often a useful tool to communicating potentially emotional message.

Examples of common language

Most organizations have their own examples of common language. These are typically phrases that have evolved to mean something more than the words that they contain, and which everyone in the organization shares the same enriched understanding of. Some examples follow (though of course all phrases can mean different things in different organizations):

Fearless Feedback

Language has the power to help reduce fear. At least from some things!

On the face of it, “fearless feedback” just means being brave in providing feedback. However, when we’ve seen it in the workplace there is actually a fair amount of nuance around it. Specifically we’ve seen it to be a shortcut for, roughly:

I’m about to provide you with a small piece of negative feedback which you might not really like. I don’t expect you to respond to it and I don’t want to have a conversation about it. I just want you to listen to it briefly to help me get it off my chest and to see if you value it. All I expect you to do in response is to listen, ask for clarification if you need it, then move on from the conversation”.

Obviously, that’s quite a shortcut and giving a working population that type of common language can be very helpful.

“In the Grip” or “In the box”

If you’re emotionally trapped in one of these, you won’t be at your best.

On the face of it this doesn’t mean much. Where we’ve seen it used, though, it’s roughly a contraction of something like “in the grip of negative emotions”.

What it really is used to convey is roughly:

I’m in a negative emotional position at the moment. Something has happened that has negatively affected my ability to work and behave well. As a result, I’m not as efficient, focused or rational as I usually am and I’m not thinking that clearly. I need some time and space to get myself back on track, and I’m not really enjoying how I’m feeling at the moment. Please don’t put anything extra on me and please do help me recover“.

Clearly, the nuance is much more powerful than simply the phrase.

Introducing Common Language

Introducing common language to an organization can take time and effort, and doing so should be a well planned project for medium or large organizations. The most important part of this process is to understand what, if any, common language is actually needed. If you have identified a need and piece of common language, some things you can do to help introduce it include:

  • Explaining the need that’s being met,
  • Explaining the benefits of common language ,
  • Helping people to use and explore the common language through leadership and management development programs, or other forms of training and development,
  • Ensuring leadership use the language,
  • Ensuring that leaders all respond in the correct way to the common language when it is used around them,
  • Including the common language in your communications, and
  • Potentially including the common language into artifacts of culture such as ways of working, team charters, team contracts or other similar documents.
You want to help that language settle in and feel right at home.

The World of Work Project View

Common language is a hugely powerful tool in any organization or team when it comes to creating or changing cultures. Without common language and shared understandings, we often see assumptions being made and messages being interpreted in ways they are not meant. Common language cuts out a huge amount of these misunderstandings and helps teams communicate and deliver effectively together.

Overall, we think that common language is an important tool for culture change, but that it’s only one of many useful tools and that it should be used sparingly. It’s possible to over-engineer people related change initiatives.

In summary, while we like common language and think it’s effective, we think it should only be used with a clear purpose, and that it should be used sparingly.

We’d also note that language is always evolving, which always complicates the use of common language.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

This post is based on our own personal experience and conversations with individuals from a range of organizations. There are no specific references for it.

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